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The recently premiered Netflix show Insatiable could have been good television. Presumably intended to be a satirical, socially trenchant high school comedy, it concerns a viciously bullied, formerly overweight young woman who undergoes a dramatic reversal of fortune. As someone who was bullied in elementary school and junior high, I have a real soft spot for stories about the underdog who evolves and embodies success as the best revenge. So many of us yearned to avenge our tormentors – implicitly by becoming the beautiful, accomplished people we always hoped we would, and explicitly by ensuring that terrible things would befall those who harmed us. I was naturally primed to enjoy this show.
When the trailer for Insatiable premiered in July 2018, there was an immediate backlash to its fatphobia. A change.org petition asking Netflix to cancel the show now has more than 233,000 signatures. I was asked to sign, but I didn’t, because not releasing Insatiable wouldn’t address the underlying issues. I also didn’t sign the petition because creators are allowed to make bad, irresponsible, problematic art.
And I held the faint hope that perhaps the trailer was not indicative of the show as a whole. Alas, it is. In fact, it’s even worse and more problematic, if not dangerous, than I thought.
Insatiable is predicated on a lazy, insulting premise. Patty Bladell, the show’s protagonist, is, at the beginning of the pilot, “television fat,” which is to say she is only as fat as the show’s creator can imagine a young woman being without completely horrifying audience sensibilities. Patty is barely even Lane Bryant fat, probably a size 18/20. The actress who plays her, Debby Ryan, wears a chin prosthetic and a lumpy stomach pillow, but it’s not at all convincing. She looks like a thin woman in a fat suit, and it’s grating that the show didn’t even try to make Patty a convincing fat girl.
And within the episode’s first ten minutes, every stereotype of a fat girl is on full display. We see Patty being teased and harassed by her classmates. During gym class, she passes out because she hasn’t eaten in days, and it’s supposed to be funny, I guess, but it isn’t. The reality is that so many women and girls regularly starve themselves toward thinness that is ever elusive. Patty talks about being “at home stuffing another hole,” while lamenting her lack of a love life, and we see her gorging on food.
This show is supposed to be about desire, about insatiable desire, about wanting so much, wanting too much. But Patty doesn’t seem particularly insatiable.
Patty has a best friend, Nonnie (Kimmy Shields), who is hopelessly in love with her, and an alcoholic single mother, who is sometimes a good parent but mostly not, and she has food to fill the voids in her life. After she awkwardly asks out a boy she has a crush on and he turns her down, Patty sits on the curb in front of a convenience store eating a chocolate bar. A homeless man (Daniel Thomas May) approaches her, insults her weight, and punches Patty in the face, thereby breaking her jaw. After having her jaw wired shut for three months, Patty has lost 70 pounds, and she is smoking hot. The ugly duckling has become a skinny swan. An act of violence is framed as the best thing to ever happen to Patty.
Then it gets even grotesquely darker. Before she can enjoy her new body and new life, Patty has to go to court because she is facing assault charges for her altercation with the homeless guy. Enter Bob Armstrong (Dallas Roberts), a lawyer and pageant coach, who takes her case because he’s trying to redeem himself after being accused of molesting Dixie Sinclair (Irene Choi), one of the young women he coaches. There’s nothing funnier, you see, than sexual assault humour.
Before long, Bob realises that the true path to redemption lies in making Patty a beauty queen, and Patty realises that her true path to redemption lies in becoming a beauty queen. Girl, I guess. In addition to the pedophilia accusation Bob Armstrong faces, there’s also a statutory rape plotline involving his son Brick (Michael Provost), who has an affair with Regina Sinclair (Arden Myrin), Dixie’s mother. The show is dangerously cavalier about topics where deep consideration would be more appropriate.
As the season unfolds, there is no shortage of plot. There is no excess this show won’t indulge. There are all kinds of absurd twists and turns as Patty adjusts to her new self. Bob is also dealing with changes that include trouble in his marriage, trouble with his son Brick, and trouble with his nemesis, Bob Barnard (Christopher Gorham), who eventually becomes his lover. By the end of the season, Insatiable devolves into sheer lunacy. There are so many plot points that not only defy credulity, they invite questions that are never answered. There are so many production issues and inconsistencies. In one car scene, you can tell it’s a rental car because the props department didn’t bother removing the “No Smoking” sticker from the dashboard. If the show was good, I wouldn’t have noticed this detail, but the show is not good.
The writers of Insatiable have never met a stereotype they don’t love, whether they’re portraying fatness or queerness or Blackness or pretty much anything else. Every lame, insulting fat joke or trope you can imagine makes its way into every episode. During the third episode, Patty’s safe place is a crawfish eating competition, because of course it is.
I concede that there are funny jokes in every episode, though I cannot recall any of them. Most of the cast does the best they can with the impoverished material they have been given. But the show is trying to be too many things — comedy, drama, satire, farce — and it does none of these things well. Mostly, the show is mean and petty and not in an interesting way.
Marginalised people mostly populate the landscape to contribute to Patty’s emotional growth. Nonnie, one of the show’s most interesting characters, is relegated to one of the most tired tropes of all time, the lovelorn gay girl who unrequitedly pines for her straight best friend. The show carelessly mines her pain for laughs, creating several cringeworthy moments. Nonnie eventually finds another love interest, Dee (Ashley D. Kelley), whose casting is inexplicable in that she is supposed to be a college student but looks much older. In every scene, Dee doesn’t look like she could plausibly be Nonnie’s girlfriend. The miscasting is distracting to the point of madness.
Dee is mostly there to serve as a Magical Negro, helping Nonnie embrace her sexuality, and offering sassy wisdom as needed. At one point, Dee says, “Being skinny don’t mean shit if you’re ugly on the inside.” It’s a nice, albeit trite, sentiment, but it’s hard to take that seriously in a show that says, repeatedly, that “skinny is magic.”
Insatiable’s greatest sin is that it suffers from a profound lack of imagination.
This show is supposed to be about desire, about insatiable desire, about wanting so much, wanting too much. But Patty doesn’t seem particularly insatiable. It is everyone around her that is insatiable. Bob Armstrong desperately wants to coach a winning pageant queen, and he wants to stay married to his wife, and he also wants to be with his lover Bob Barnard. Bob’s wife Coralee (Alyssa Milano) yearns to be a respected society lady, and she wants a career of her own, and she wants her husband, and she lusts after Bob Barnard. Nonnie simply wants Patty to love her, to see her, to hear her.
As for Patty, though, even after 12 episodes, it’s not really clear what she wants. Instead, she flails about, wreaking havoc, engaging in many of the behaviours she was once subjected to. She is all id and narcissism, but the show would have us believe her comportment is acceptable because once, she suffered the greatest of all tragedies — being fat.
Since the show’s debut, the creator, Lauren Gussis has given several interviews explaining the genesis of the show. She has offered her bona fides as well as those of the show’s writers, telling The Hollywood Reporter that her writers’ room included “men and women who have had eating disorders.” She shares that she has dealt with many of the issues Patty deals with in the show. That’s well and good. But there is a difference between understanding disordered eating and understanding and portraying fatness and weight loss with nuance. Gussis doesn’t seem to realise this. I contacted Netflix to ask if there were any fat writers in the Insatiable writer’s room, but they have not responded.
Insatiable’s greatest sin is that it suffers from a profound lack of imagination. The show cannot imagine that a straight man could truly love pageants and mentoring young women and be secure in his masculinity, or that a young lesbian could love herself enough to not fall in love with her straight best friend, or that a fat girl could be happy, healthy, and thriving without losing weight. Never does this show dare to imagine that maybe it was everyone else who had the problem when Patty was fat, not Patty herself. The show cannot imagine that perhaps, the most profound way Patty could seek vengeance would be to love herself at any size, to be seen by a love interest as lovable at any size, to see herself as beautiful because of rather than despite her fat body.
In the second episode, Patty thinks she has killed the homeless man who broke her jaw after going with him to his hotel room where she, for some bizarre reason, has gone to have sex with him as an act of vengeance. Why is this vengeance? Who knows? As she tries to find a way out of her predicament, she laments, “My life just started,” and it is one of the most frustrating and painful moments of the entire series, because it reveals so much about how the show’s creators, and how this world sees fatness as a problem, an obstacle to overcome. This is not entertainment. It is incredibly damaging.
There are countless missed opportunities for Insatiable to explore fatness, parental neglect, social ostracism, coming of age, and what it is like to be invisible, to have your most important needs and desires go unsatisfied. I suppose, in the end, this show’s failures leave us desperately insatiable, too, and in that, the show’s name is rather apt.